Even Paul Broun backs federal spending when it’s on the Savannah Port

Turns out there are some things Paul Broun is willing to spend federal money on.

The ultra-conservative congressman from Athens is known for submitting fusillades of program-killing amendments to spending bills and will tick off a list of federal agencies he wants to eliminate faster than Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

But on Wednesday he joined Georgia's entire U.S. House delegation in backing an $8.2 billion water projects bill, over the objections of conservative pressure groups like Heritage Action for America and FreedomWorks, which regularly praise Broun as one of their favorites.

The reason: The bill’s passage will commence the Port of Savannah deepening, the top economic development project in Georgia.

Broun contends his support is not mere parochialism.

“It’s not only going to help Georgia,” Broun said of the $662 million project, which backers hope will get $400 million from the feds. “It’s going to help every state in the Southeast, help states in the Midwest, help us as a nation be able to export products, import things we need. We’ve got to have ports in this nation, whether it’s the Los Angeles port or the Savannah port. …

“It’s not just focusing upon a congressional district. It’s not just supporting something that has to do with a special interest. It has to do with what is in the best interest of this nation.”

As Bloomberg reported last week, business groups have been trying to sell tea party-inspired members of Congress on the water bill by quoting George Washington's 1783 support for improving inland waterways.

No such pitch was needed for Georgia’s conservatives, said Curtis Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority. Broun has been on the record in favor of pumping federal bucks into Savannah for years, and all 14 members of the House delegation – running the ideological gamut from Broun to Atlanta Democrat John Lewis – voted for the water bill.

“To me, it’s a fairly simple sell,” Foltz said. “If you spend a dollar and get $5.50 in return (according to an Army Corps of Engineers study on the project’s economic impact) you need to spend that dollar. This isn’t a Bridge to Nowhere-type project.”

The Georgia Chamber of Commerce also “activated our grassroots network” to harangue congressmen to back the water bill, said senior vice president Joselyn Baker.

The delegation waved off concerns about the bill from environmental groups that accelerating environmental reviews of Army Corps projects risks damage to surrounding ecosystems, and from the conservative groups, who railed in a letter to Congress against the Corps’ $60 billion backlog of unfunded projects and several other perceived flaws.

But the groups did not make Wednesday's tally a "key vote" for their scorecards, a designation that can doom Republican support. And as the 417-3 vote showed, there were more chambers of commerce than Georgia's nudging lawmakers.

Broun, one of three House Republicans running for Senate next year along with Phil Gingrey of Marietta and Jack Kingston of Savannah, said that he does not vote according to the whims of pressure groups.

He has four avowed criteria for his votes: Is it in the original intent of the Constitution? Does it fit Judeo-Christian values? Is it necessary? Can we afford it?

But considering the size of the national debt, which Broun contends is the greatest threat of our time, can we afford any new spending?

“Absolutely we must afford it,” Broun said. “There are things the federal government should be spending money on. Deepening the port of Savannah is one. Building a strong national security, national defense is another.”

He also wants the Army Corps to repair the Savannah River Lock and Dam in Augusta and turn it over to local authorities. But that’s a funding fight for another day.

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